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Time to stop writing about the benefits of working from home. We were convinced a long time ago. Remote working is a reality. Not only a reality but a necessity: if a business wants to acquire real talent, and to hold onto talented workers, as an employer you NEED to have a work-from-home option.
You’ve probably read (or at least seen headlines for) countless articles on how the modern workplace is changing, and how work-life integration is here and holding fast. A quick reiteration of the benefits of working from home, then:
What seems to be lacking right now is the other perspective: the employer’s.
Most employers are not averse to the idea of employees working from home– they recognize that the opportunity of remote work is is expected.
But that’s not to say that they don’t have their reservations: without seeming overbearing, how do you maintain a sense of trust, accountability, productivity, and workplace culture when the company is spread over offices, cities, states, countries and/or continents?
It’s time to lay the groundwork for some best-practices.
It shouldn’t surprise you that the basis for all of these best practices is COMMUNICATION. Open, constant, and transparent. Even with everyone in the office all of the time, regular and open communication is key to setting expectations, providing accountability, and reducing anxiety associated with completing tasks. Good managers know this.
So how is this critical component (tricky to implement even in-office) achieved with an employee operating from home? Let’s frame this discussion using the concerns that employers have (and are primarily responsible for providing solutions to): maintaining productivity, accountability, and CULTURE.
Maintaining productivity is a matter of maintaining a sense of formal schedules, and about clearly communicating your expectations.
I’ll cite the example of our development team. The team is split 50/50 between those working in the office most days and those working at home most days. No matter where the team member is working from, they all connect via video conference at 9:00 am sharp to discuss the day’s goals and strategies.
These meetings aren’t optional, and showing up late to them is the same as being late for work. This isn’t set up to be punitive, of course, but a clearly defined expectation to indicate that no matter where you are, your work day begins at 9:00. [NOTE: Human beings crave this sort of structure.]
Once in the meeting, the team lead will run through the day’s priorities and goals (and when appropriate, the goals of the week/month/quarter/year), and they work collectively to plan the tasks that each will accomplish that day. As a group, they share an understanding of about how long each task takes, and no one seeks (or is able) to fudge their schedule. Once expectations are clearly established, they part ways and set about their business.
Clear, reasonable, regularly-iterated expectations set the stage for productivity for this team every day.
Marissa Meyer famously cancelled all remote working opportunities when she took over Yahoo!, citing an abuse of the “privilege” and a lack of regular check-ins. Instead of instituting reforms and guidelines that set expectations, she axed the option outright. In a positive spin, she defended the decision by saying “People are more collaborative, more inventive when people come together.” While true, this could have been achieved by institutional reforms to increase accountability.
Continuing to follow our dev team:
At the end of the day, at 4:50, the team connects from wherever they are to go over the day’s tasks. They talk successes and roadblocks. And it’s not a good or a bad thing, but an “I got this done and everything went smoothly” or an “I couldn’t get to this because X popped up,” or a “we had to deal with this bug.”
Chances are they were communicating over the course of the day, so during these EOD meetings they’re already aware of most of the stuff that’s going on. But this meeting at the end of the day provides recognition and a sense of accomplishment, while at the same time giving the team a chance to talk through any issues they had so they can learn and plan a way forward.
They’ll ask three main questions:
Picture for a moment that instead of these daily meetings, the team were to connect every couple days, or even at a weekly. All of a sudden there are issues that may have been going on for a week, or a team member who gets distracted because they need a little oversight to stay on task. Picture the anxiety held on both sides of that discussion. There are unnecessary surprises and required contingency plans that should have been in the works days ago. You’re asking for trouble.
Human’s are wired to honour commitments when they say them out loud or write them down. This practice builds trust with every meeting (which is also crucial to culture-building) and also helps reduce overall anxiety of team members and the manager, as they are constantly getting small updates in the form of a normal, human conversation.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” said former Ford CEO Mark Fields. No doubt about it: a sense of pulling together, of shared vision, is critical to motivation.
So this is a tricky one: how do you emulate the bonds made at the water cooler? The collective feel and mood of the office? Regular communication is still a big part of this, but there’s something more to it.
As a conferencing company, people calling in via video is a big part of our culture. We’re lucky in this sense. We take pride in it. We have sales teams, ops teams, the aforementioned development team scattered across multiple countries, and we depend on the same services we provide in order to connect. It fits.
But this isn’t the case for a lot of companies, who feel that in order to pull together with a unified culture and vision, there need to be as few barriers as possible to interaction.
So what can be done to maintain a sense of cohesive unity with people in so many places?
Obviously the regularly-scheduled check-in helps. Any group of people that meets on a regular basis will develop rapport. I sit beside the development team and you’d better believe I put on my noise-cancelling headphones when they start bantering during a video meeting. They share some laughs, and that greases the wheels of a very productive unit. This happens during their regular ad-hoc meetings too. Other than my surly aversion to noise in general, it’s nice to have people laughing at work – and all the nicer when folks at home get to share a laugh with people in the office.
Like many other companies, we’ll hold monthly town-halls to discuss what’s been happening and our vision going forward. During these mandatory meetings, folks at home will call in and see the packed boardroom, and will BE seen on the giant screen up front. They participate as would any person physically in the office. A team or company meeting will never exclude remote workers for any reason. And the whole company benefits.
It’s important to note that you’re not going to be able to replicate the ad-hoc conversations that happen when people are in the same office. Whether you use Slack or MS Teams or whatever team software, or have video solutions available to everyone, it’s just not going to match what happens when you physically bump into someone and share an idea. But the trade of for remote workers is worth it, and the best practices we’re suggesting here are a pretty decent substitute.
This means that it’s worth augmenting your video communication with a couple big in-person events each year. We drag everyone a couple times at least, and it can’t help but reinforce the bonds made over video every day.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the technology required to make these best practices practicable. It doesn’t take much to create a setup at home that allows one to call into video meetings. Unified Collab platforms like Skype for Business are a simple way to connect and share content. Cloud solutions like RP1Cloud make it possible for everyone to connect no matter what device they’re joining from.
It’s of critical importance that the home set up have a half-decent camera, microphone, and bandwidth that allow a high-quality video call can run smoothly. The point of video calls is to witness the nuance of facial expression and body language, not to mention speak to one another as though you ARE sitting side by side. Simulating in-person meetings is the point.
Human beings have been running in groups the size of small businesses since our earliest traceable origins. Being part of a community, contributing and being held accountable, satisfy basic human instincts.
We’re at a stage in our evolution where we no longer need to be side by side to complete a task together. But to maintain culture and a sense of pulling together, of equal contribution and opportunity, face-to-face communication is still of the highest importance. Working from home absolutely will not be viable without it.
So consider these main points when establishing your own work-from-home program:
When done correctly, when communicating regularly, having people work at home can be as productive, and feel as natural as having every employee in-office. We’re all convinced of its benefits. Everyone is getting on board. As an employer, you just need to make sure you cover your butt and do it right.
[Quick note: Pragmatic Conferencing has worked in the communications sphere for 12 years. People working from home drive an enormous part of our business, and always have. Half of our own company works from home offices. Over the last decade+ we’ve developed strategies that have maintained culture, accountability, productivity. We’ve done our research, and through trial and error have reached an equilibrium through our own best practices. We also use these points to sell our portfolio of solutions. We’re excited to share them with now that working from home is now nearly ubiquitous.]